Hoovervilles: Homeless Camps of the Great Depression

New York City Hobo "Hooverville" 1931
New York City Hobo "Hooverville" 1931.

Betteman/Getty Images

“Hoovervilles” were hundreds of crude campgrounds built across the United States by poverty stricken people who had lost their homes because of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Usually built on the edges of larger cities, hundreds of thousands of people lived in the many Hooverville camps. The term was a derogatory reference to President Herbert Hoover, who many people blamed for allowing the U.S. to fall into economic despair.

Key Takeaways: Hoovervilles

  • “Hoovervilles” were hundreds of makeshift homeless encampments built near large cities across the United States during the Great Depression (1929-1933).
  • Dwellings in the Hoovervilles were little more than shacks built of discarded bricks, wood, tin, and cardboard. Others were simply holes dug in the ground covered with pieces of tin.
  • The largest Hooverville, located in St. Louis, Missouri, was home to as many as 8,000 homeless people from 1930 to 1936.
  • The longest lasting Hooverville, located in Seattle, Washington, stood as a semi-autonomous community from 1931 to 1941.
  • Public reaction to the Hoovervilles added to President Hoover’s general unpopularity, leading to his landslide defeat by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election.
  • By the middle of 1941, Roosevelt’s New Deal programs had increased employment to the point that all but a few Hoovervilles had been abandoned and demolished. 

The Onset of the Great Depression

The first nine years of the so-called “Roaring Twenties” had been a decade of prosperity and optimism in the United States. As people increasingly relied on credit to buy homes filled with new conveniences of the day, like refrigerators, radios, and cars, many Americans were living beyond their means. However, prosperity was soon replaced by poverty and optimism by desperation following the stock market crash of October 1929 and the general failure of the nation’s banking system.

As fears grew, many Americans believed the U.S. government could and should do something to help. President Herbert Hoover, however, refused to propose any assistance programs, saying instead that Americans should help each other. While private and corporate philanthropy provided some assistance during the early 1930s, poverty continued to increase rapidly. By 1932, Herbert Hoover’s last full year in office, the U.S. unemployment rate had soared to 25%, with more than 15 million people without jobs or homes.

The Hoovervilles Spring Up

As the Depression deepened, the sheer number of homeless people became overwhelming. Out of desperation, the homeless began building camps of makeshift shacks near cities across the nation. The camps, dubbed “Hoovervilles” after Republican President Hoover, often sprang up near charity operated soup kitchens and rivers for drinking water and limited sanitary needs.

New York City: Depression shacks "Hoover Village" in the old Central Park reservoir.
New York City: Depression shacks "Hoover Village" in the old Central Park reservoir. Betteman/Getty Images

The term itself was first used in 1930 by Charles Michelson, the Publicity Chief of the Democratic National Committee when he published an article in the New York Times referring to a homeless camp in Chicago, Illinois, as “Hooverville.” Before long, the term was in common use.

The quality and livability of structures built in Hooverville camps varied widely. In some cases, unemployed skilled construction workers used stones and bricks from demolished buildings to build fairly solid houses. However, most buildings were little more than crude shelters thrown together from wooden crates, cardboard boxes, tar paper, scrap metal, and other fire-prone discarded materials. Some shelters were little more than holes in the ground covered with tin or cardboard.

Living in Hooverville

Hoovervilles varied in size from a few hundred residents to thousands of people in larger cities like New York City, Washington, D.C., and Seattle, Washington. The smaller camps tended to come and go, while the larger Hoovervilles proved far more permanent. For example, one of the eight Hoovervilles in Seattle, Washington, stood from 1931 to 1941.

Usually built on vacant land, the camps were largely tolerated by city authorities. However, some cities banned them if they trespassed on parks or privately owned land. Many Hoovervilles were built along rivers, proving drinking water and allowing some residents to grow vegetables.

Life in the encampments remained best described as grim. Unsanitary conditions in the camps left both their residents and the nearby communities at risk of disease. However, understanding that the campers had nowhere else to go, and fearing that they might still fall victim to the Great Depression themselves, most more affluent people were willing to tolerate the Hoovervilles and their impoverished residents. Some Hoovervilles even received assistance from churches and private donors.

Even during the worst of the Depression, most Hooverville residents continued to seek employment, often taking backbreaking seasonal jobs like picking and packing field crops. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” writer John Steinbeck, vividly described his hardships as a young farmworker in the “Weedpatch” Hooverville near Bakersfield, California. “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation,” he wrote of the squalled camp. “There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize.”

Notable Hoovervilles

St. Louis, Missouri, was the site of the largest Hooverville in America. Divided into distinct sectors, the racially integrated and cohesive encampment was home to as many as 8,000 destitute people. Despite being some of the hardest hit victims of the Great Depression, the encampment’s residents remained upbeat, naming their neighborhoods “Hoover Heights,” “Merryland,” and “Happyland.” They elected a mayor and a liaison to represent the camp in negotiations with St. Louis authorities. With such a well-developed social order, the camp maintained itself as a functional separate community from 1930 to 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’sNew Deal” sweeping economic recovery plan allocated federal funds for its removal.

America’s longest lasting Hooverville in Seattle, Washington, stood for ten years, from 1931 to 1941. Erected by unemployed lumberjacks on the tidal flats of the Port of Seattle, the encampment covered nine acres and grew to house up to 1,200 people. On two occasions, the Seattle Health Department ordered the residents to leave and burned their shanties when they refused. Both times, however, the Hooverville shacks were immediately rebuilt. After negotiating with the camp’s “mayor,” the Health Department agreed to let the residents remain as long they observed minimal safety and sanitary rules.

A 'Hooverville' On Waterfront Of Seattle Washington USA Great Depression March 1933
A 'Hooverville' on waterfront of Seattle, Washington, March 1933. Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The public’s frustration with President Hoover’s refusal to deal with the Depression peaked in the spring of 1932 when an estimated 15,000 World War I veterans and their families established a Hooverville along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. On June 17, 1932, many of the veterans, known as the “Bonus Army,” marched on the U.S. Capitol demanding payment the badly needed WWI combat bonuses the government had promised them. However, their request was denied by Congress and Hoover ordered them evicted. When most of the veterans refused to leave their shacks, Hoover ordered his Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur to drive them out. Commanded by Maj. George S. Patton, the U.S. Army burned the Hooverville and drove the veterans out with tanks, tear gas, and fixed bayonets. Though Hoover later agreed that MacArthur had used excessive force, irreparable damage to his presidency and legacy had been done.

A Bonus Army veterans’ encampment in Washington, D.C. being burned in 1932
Bonus Army encampment burned, 1932. Kinderwood Archive / Getty Images

Political Fallout

Along with “Hoovervilles,” other derogatory terms aimed at President Hoover’s continued refusal to initiate welfare programs became common in both the homeless camps and newspapers. A “Hoover blanket” was a pile of old newspapers used as bedding. “Hoover Pullmans” were rusted railroad boxcars used as dwellings. “Hoover leather” referred to cardboard or newspaper used to replace worn-out shoe soles.

Two young residents at a Hooverville shantytown in Washington DC.
Two young residents at a Hooverville shantytown in Washington, D.C. MPI/Getty Images

In addition to his perceived disregard for the harm done by the Great Depression, Hoover was criticized for backing the controversial Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. Signed in June 1930, the decidedly protectionist law placed extremely high tariffs on imported foreign goods. While the goal of the tariffs was to protect U.S.-made products from foreign competition, most countries retaliated by raising their tariffs on U.S. goods. The effect was the virtual freezing of international trade. By the spring of 1932, when it could have most helped ease the Depression, America’s revenue from world trade was reduced by more than half.

Public dissatisfaction with Hoover soon all but eliminated his chances of being reelected, and on November 8, 1932, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in a landslide. By the early 1940s, Roosevelt’s New Deal programs had turned the economy around and many of the Hoovervilles had been abandoned and demolished. By the time the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, enough Americans were working again that virtually all the encampments had vanished.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Weiser, Kathy. “Hoovervilles of the Great Depression.” Legends of America, https://www.legendsofamerica.com/20th-hoovervilles/.
  • Gregory, James. “Hoovervilles and Homelessness.” The Great Depression in Washington State, 2009, https://depts.washington.edu/depress/hooverville.shtml.
  • O’Neil, Tim. “5,000 settle in shacks along the Mississippi during the Great Depression.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 23, 2010, https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/a-look-back-settle-in-shacks-along-the-mississippi-during/article_795763a0-affc-59d2-9202-5d0556860908.html.
  • Gray, Christopher. “Streetscapes: Central Park's 'Hooverville'; Life Along 'Depression Street'.” The New York Times, August 29, 1993, https://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/29/realestate/streetscapes-central-park-s-hooverville-life-along-depression-street.html.